Saturday 24 February 2018

From passive princess to cop: How Disney's heroines have evolved

The film-maker's latest leading lady is a role model for a new generation of girls

Jasmine Aladdin
Snow White
Beauty & the Beast
Little Mermaid
Elsa from Frozen.

Tanya Sweeney

The words 'Disney Princess' often conjure up the same soft-focus image: a giggly, dainty damsel, wide of eye and tiny of waist. But that was then… and this is now.

Clearly, Disney have cottoned on to a simple but powerful truism: that no youngster is going to ever look up to a Disney princess who is waiting to be rescued. And when it comes to creating saccharine, fluttery milksops, they've been in a league of their own for decades.

A recent study by linguists Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer confirmed what many suspected: while female characters spoke roughly 50pc of the time in the first princess films, by the 1990s they had all but lost the power of speech. Worse still, the worlds they lived in were largely populated by men.

The animation giant has done away with the likes of innocent Snow White and downtrodden Cinderella. In their place, a new breed of trailblazing, independent heroines, some of which are even (gasp) career-minded.

"All these Disney heroines, the princesses, they're a product of their time," screenwriter Linda Wolverton, who wrote Maleficent, said recently. "The princesses that were created in the 1940s and 50s, they were the best of what a woman should be then: You're the good girl. You took abuse... and through it all, you sang and were nice. But we're not like that anymore. We kick ass now."

The latest female icon to hit screens is Zootropolis' Lieutenant Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin). Judy becomes the first female cop in a department manned in the main by buffalo and rhinos. Career-driven, ambitious Judy finds herself paired with a fox, and falling headlong into a political conspiracy.

No love interest, no wedding dress, no white knight. Critics are raving that the film is sharp, incisive and likely to teach young audiences a thing or two about badass females.

In another coup for girlkind, singer Shakira, who voices the comely Gazelle in the film, asked studio bosses to put some meat on the bones of her character, deeming her too skinny.

In recent years, it has come to light that, far from being a cuddly 'favourite uncle' figure, Walt Disney was closer to a bigot and misogynist. Disney's own grandniece Abigail echoes the sentiments on Facebook: "Anti-Semite? Check. Misogynist? OF COURSE!! Racist? C'mon he made a film (Jungle Book) about how you should stay 'with your own kind' at the height of the fight over segregation!" she wrote.

Little wonder, then, that Disney's princesses were always more than a little simpering under Walty's reign.

Snow White, his first in 1937, is as passive and impressionable as can be. Never mind singing 'some day my prince will come', how about all that free housework she does for seven slobs?

Hot on her heels came the good-natured, but ultimately idiotic Cinderella (1950), banished to the attic in her own home. Yet more sitting around waiting to be rescued… and in this case, it's not even Cinderella's sweet nature that gets her out of a sticky situation. It's her shoe size. Sleeping Beauty's flaxen-haired Aurora, meanwhile (1959), spends much of the film asleep.

It wasn't until 1989's The Little Mermaid that little girls had a cartoon princess in pretty dresses to look up to. In keeping with the 80s, where working women became something of a Hollywood trope, Ariel was impassioned and spirited. Yet Disney refused to let the shining knight go, and Ariel only finds happiness with a man that she only speaks to at the end of the film.

1991's Beauty & The Beast brought young cinemagoers another archetypal princess in the form of lovely Belle. At this point, it's safe to assume that the Disney princess days were numbered. In 1992, Aladdin's Princess Jasmine - though suffocated by her kingdom and the demands of being royalty - famously intones, 'I am not a prize to be won!' (to negligible effect).

Pocahontas arrived in 1995, charting the love affair between a native American woman and an Englishman at a time when the Jamestown settlers were arriving from the Virginia company. Pocahontas was spirited, going 'where the wind takes her' (once that's into the arms of a man). Mulan (1998) featured not a beautiful heroine who gets the guy, but saves her country and her father. Also notably, she was not a princess, either through marriage or blood. An interesting departure.

But the world had become slightly sick of sugary princesses breaking into song and having bluebirds land in their shiny manes. 2007's Enchanted, starring Amy Adams as Giselle, was a pitch-perfect satire; suddenly, looking for music, magic and happy ever afters seemed downright ridiculous. It was time to awaken the feminists.

Come 2010, and Disney heroines became flat-out badasses. Tangled (2010) was the first notable attempt to debunk the stereotype that it had created: in subverting the age-old Rapunzel tale, the 'damsel in distress' becomes the heroine in her own epic adventure.

Two years later, and Disney are edging ever closer to Peak Deadly Disney Heroine. Brave (2012) featured the unforgettable, female-haired Princess Merida, likely the first Disney heroine not to even bother with a romantic interest. The film was to prove to be a watershed moment in Disney's arduous trek towards the 'perfect' character. As 'the princess that countless girls and their parents were waiting on', fans were outraged when Disney gave her a makeover.

Yet further seismic changes were yet to come. Only a year later in 2013 Frozen's Elsa and Anna were to become the breakouts in Disney's princess pantheon. Again, the idea of finding 'true love' is turned on its head, with sisterhood and female friendship easily trumping the idea.

Where to from here? It's not likely that Disney are going to backtrack on their newfound feminist slant, given that these developments have become the studio's saving grace.

Irish Independent

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